On May 3, 2020, Friars Rafael PINHEIRO NORMANDO, Jorge Rolando FERNÁNDEZ, Philip KAROTTAPPURAM NICLOVOSE, Donald Ignatius BASSANA and Łukasz STANISZEWSKI, all Conventual Franciscans, began a period of volunteer service at the Fraterna Domus Retreat Center in Sacrofano, in the Province of Rome. The Center has been accommodating eighty-five homeless men during the current pandemic. The friars are volunteering in order to assist the “Caritas” [charitable arm] of the Diocese of Rome.
The friars have been performing manual tasks, such as washing clothes, providing chauffeur service for the various needs of the house and the guests, setting up the dining hall to serve meals cooked by the sisters who reside at the Center; and finally, offering a spiritual dimension for any who might request it. It has been a busy time with lots of work, but it has also been a joy to be in the company of so many brothers. The friars have listened to the guests tell many difficult stories. Some lost their families and everything they owned during the war in their country. Some had been tortured. Others are trying to rebuild their lives and find new opportunities. The guests are a mix of Italians and foreigners. Some are refugees, and others are immigrants, but all of them needed a place to shelter during the pandemic.
Our dialogue with these guests has given us some food for thought that we would like to share with you.
One important experience we had was with a Muslim man of Arabic origin, around 40 years old. He has lived in Italy for almost three years. We were impressed with the way he prayed during the month of Ramadan. Talking with him, we got to learn about his significant ordeal and understand how he lives in relationship with God. When we asked what it meant to be a Muslim, he gave us a variety of answers, but two of them really resonated. The first was: “A Muslim must always be grateful to God at all times; he is grateful for the food on his plate, for the clothes he wears and for the opportunities he finds in life. I am very grateful to God, and to Italy, for giving me the opportunity to have a home to live in, food to eat and clothes to wear during this pandemic.”
From his response, one can tell he is very grateful to God and happy to be here. Being grateful to God leads us to being fulfilled people in life, as Scripture tells us: “In all circumstances give thanks” (Cf. 1Th 5:18). This is why we are all called to ask ourselves: Why am I grateful to God today? During the day, are my words and thoughts those of gratitude or complaint? Here is a practical exercise: Thinking about the people who are closest to me, can I list at least five reasons to be grateful to God, based on what makes each of those persons dear to me?
The Muslim man’s second response for us to reflect on also deals with his understanding of gratitude. Gratitude is not about simply saying thank you. Rather, we are all called to demonstrate gratitude with our own lives. He explained the concept further: “If a person goes to a public bathroom and finds it clean, he must strive to leave it as clean as he found it. Indeed, this will allow those who come after him to find a clean environment. This is a concrete way of showing one’s gratitude to God—with deeds and not words. Being honest, fair, consistent, and faithful is the most profound testimony you can give to say you are grateful to God.”
We can say that this man expresses a deep and real capacity for believing in God.
Finally, we should mention the sisters living at Fraterna Domus, who have such an enchanting simplicity and strength about them. Their way of doing things shows that they are truly grateful to God. Let me take the liberty of quoting their founder, Father Francesco BISINELLA: “Hospitality is our charism”. Hospitality is a nice way of showing gratitude to God and we friars have been very well received by the guests, by Caritas of Rome, by other volunteers and by these splendid sisters.
We thank the Lord for the opportunity he has given us to serve our brothers.
Friar Rafael NORMANDO